For this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, Barry Little tells how his shift to soil health practices immediately impacted his crop yield, and not in the way that you might think.
Barry Little (left) of Castlewood, SD, pictured here with his son, Eli, is heartened to work in tandem with Mother Nature. To him, a strong indication of success is the return of wildlife on his farm– bugs, cottontails, deer. This means that he is successfully building a habitat for the animals of the land. To him, resilience calls back to the 1800s; imagining what the land looked like before it had ever been plowed. To get in touch with that, he listens to Mother Nature– “she has built in the systems to bring back what was here when white folks first crossed the plains, and I think we're making progress to bring that back,” explains Barry. Since beginning to follow nature’s lead, water is now going into the soil that used to run off, his pastures stay green through the summer where they used to turn brown early in August, he’s reduced machinery, fertilizer and chemical costs, and his yields are going up. A major misconception he has observed regarding regenerative practices is that in the first years of implementation farmers will witness a dramatic fall in yields. Barry didn’t witness that– but rather has seen a steady increase in his yields.
1) What is the one thing you've done that has been the most important to the success of your operation?
You know, there's a lot of things, but I'm just going to say integrating livestock on every acre.
2) Can you recall a moment in time or time when the light bulb went on for you that you realized soil health practice makes sense or that you should change the way you were farming?
I think that's happened every time I've gone to hear someone like Gabe Brown or Jim Gerrish speak, or at least one or two speakers at every soil health conference. There's always something that someone is doing or has thought up that is completely foreign to me. And it's just like, I don't know why I didn't know that.
3) What surprised you the most when you started implementing soil health practices?
I think probably the first surprise for me was that my yields weren't going down. The conventional wisdom is you do these things and you're going to lose some yield right away, but our yields actually continued to go up.
4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing their crop farming systems for soil health and resiliency?
I'm going to go back to my last answer. The misconception is that you do this and all of a sudden, you're not going to raise as much grain as you did.
5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't yet done to improve soil health on your farm?
We've been dabbling with grass-finished beef for many years now. I would like to purposely plant a full season cover crop on some acres and then graze it with the yearlings and pull them off in the fall and have them be finished and ready to go to market. Because there's folks that are doing that. It's just my mindset, the idea that I could plant a corn crop here, but I'm going to plant a whole season cover crop and graze.
6) What advice would you have for someone who is considering changing their farming system to one that's better for building soil health?
I would say that if you're going to make the change to start with a small grain, preferably winter wheat seeded in the fall, that's a good place to start because there's a lot of things you can do with it.
7) When you walk across your crop lands what do you look for as an indicator or as indicators of soil health?
Bugs. And kind of going along with that, I guess what I like to see is some wildlife, whether it's a songbird, or a cottontail, a deer, or whatever it is. If the wildlife is there it means we're making a habitat for them.
8) What change have you made that you at first thought would never work?
Oh, that's a difficult one, because just about every change I’ve tried somebody else said they did it. And since they said they did it, I believed that it would work.
9) What does resiliency mean to you and what signs are you seeing in your cropland that your croplands are getting more resilient?
For me, I take a more long-term view on resilience and see, I like to imagine what our area looked like in 1850 and how it had been thousands of years of migrating ruminants that had created this vast grassland that was teeming with wildlife and just, you know, like a paradise. Then in a very short time, my ancestors plowed it up, and some would have you believe it's been destroyed. But what gives me hope is the fact that Mother Nature is much wiser than we are. She has built in the systems to bring back what was here when white folks first crossed the plains and I think we're making progress to bring that back.
Water is going into the soil that used to run off. Our pastures stay green through the summer where they used to turn brown early in August. We're going down the right road. We've got a long way to go.
10) What indicators do you have that healthy soil practices also make sense economically to you?
Well, that's the easy one. I mean, all you got to do is go through your corn budget and see that we've reduced the machinery side of things and we reduce the fertilizer side of things and we've reduced the chemical side of things. But our yields are going up.
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